Life According to Piano

The music that made me #6

Ha! I’m back!

So there I was, an undergraduate music major, summering at the Aspen Music Festival. The very best thing about that summer was all of the concerts, and the concert that impacted me the most was Lili Kraus playing a Mozart piano concerto with the festival orchestra. * 

In case you don’t already know (and if you do know, then skip this paragraph), a concerto is a sonata for solo instrument plus orchestra. In the opening (sonata form) movement, usually two themes are introduced in what we call the exposition; and then the exposition is repeated. In a concerto, most often the orchestra plays the first time through the exposition, without the soloist; and on the repeat, the soloist takes up the melodies and the orchestra primarily accompanies the soloist. (Please note all the wiggle words I put in, since the music does what the composer wants and therefore concertos don’t always follow this pattern. But Mozart’s concerts do.)

So the soloist has to sit there for a while. **

Maybe: doing nothing.

The music that made me #5

I’m still on a Brahms kick. Today, Piano Concerto No. 2, in Bb, Op 83.

This is simply some of the most beautiful music ever created. Such passion & power!

So, okay, it’s long. But every note & every moment is so exquisite. (And I love Marc-André Hamelin’s playing. Did you notice I had his performance of the Gershwin Concerto in F posted the other day?)

Funny story: I’ve never realistically planned to perform this concerto in this particular lifetime. That’s not really my path. But I did purchase the piano part when I was post-graduate school. I got home to the piano, opened the book, played the first notes, and thought to myself, in great surprise, “Oh my gosh, it sounds just like the Brahms piano concerto!!!”

Apparently I had always believed some special magic must be invoked to create these sounds.

[The special magic required is, of course, boatloads of effective practice. And the heart of a lion.]

PS: an intermezzo for encore waits for you at the end.

The music that made me #4

Today, at last, classical music appears on my list. (Well, assuming that we call Rhapsody in Blue and the Concert in F jazz music, which I’m not sure I do.)

For years I’ve had a story about this music, a myth I told myself. While I’ve been preparing this series of posts this week, I’ve realized that the myth isn’t very likely. So I’ll tell it the way I think it really went down, and not the way I tell it to myself.

When I entered Duke University as an undergraduate, I had no major in mind. And I really did not have a music major in mind, as I’d quit my piano lessons a few years before (after achieving my life goal of playing Rhapsody in Blue!) and had just been making up songs since then. On a whim I took a couple of teensy credit music courses my first semester, which turned out to be the dreaded-by-music-majors-but-nonetheless-required Ear Training/Sight Singing and Keyboard Theory.

They were a blast! I decided that I would major in music after all. (When I was 12, everybody knew I was going to grow up as a musician. By the time I was 18? Not so much.)

The music that made me #3

So there I was, pre-teen & all, enjoying sappy pop/rock love songs, when I joined a record club (now there’s something you don’t hear much about anymore!) and I had to pick out a certain number of records each month. And one month I thought, “I’d like to hear something different.” And on a whim, I chose Robert Johnson.  About whom I knew nothing.


I love that so much, I created my own crazy piano arrangement of it. (On Drivin’! of course.) I love that so much, I’ve made up bunches of my own blues songs.

(I do have the complete recordings of Robert Johnson on CD. So this music actually fulfills the terms of the original challenge.)

Classical music is underrepresented so far in my list, isn’t it? Well, that will change pretty soon.

The music that made me #2

Or, more precisely, #2 through #umptyzillion.

It it no exaggeration at all to say that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is why I am a pianist & composer today. I’m pretty sure I’ve written that on my blog before. [UPDATE: yes, and not even that long ago.]

At ages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—and even now!—when I hear it I want to dance to it, conduct it, play it, inhabit it, be every instrument in the ensemble, shout it to the heavens.

Some funny things regarding me and Rhapsody in Blue:

  • When I started piano, Rhapsody in Blue was what I wanted to play “when I grew up.”
  • I have a distinct memory of working out the first page of the piano solo version very soon after I could read music notation. 
  • I played it in one of those multi-school music evaluation/contests when I was 13. I did not play well, as it was my first encounter with a grand piano and I couldn’t handle the action—way heavier than our upright at home.
  • I quit piano lessons just a couple of years later because I could play Rhapsody already, and really, what could be better than that? (I started up lessons again in college, having met Brahms finally. That will pop up later in this series.)
  • And, in one of fate’s little ironic gestures, when I was invited to perform a concerto with an orchestra back in the 80s, the conductor wanted me to play Mozart (which I did. More on that later too.) Because at that time I had a reputation as a classical pianist (because Brahms got me back to piano & I had degrees in music). But the very next orchestra concert after mine was a different pianist performing… Rhapsody in Blue! (Because he had a reputation as a pop musician.) 
  • You will be pleased to know that I kept my gnashing of teeth secret until this very moment.


PS: I also love love love Gershwin's Concerto in F. In case you are looking for something more.

PPS: More about Rhapsody in Blue and me, here.

The music that made me #1

This is my version of the Facebook challenge of sharing my 10 most loved recordings.**

What can I say? Most of the recordings that I have loved were actual true records, and were lost in a move several decades ago. Oh well. And unfortunately in most cases I have only vague memories of who the performers were; the music itself was always the attraction for me.

But in thinking it over, I’ve remembered quite a lot about the music I grew up with, so I’m going to do a series of posts with YouTube performances of “the music that made me.”

And amazingly enough (you will find this hard to believe), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is not first on the list. But that’s only because I’m trying to go somewhat chronologically through my memories.

Happy listening!

First up:

Lili Marlene

My parents had this on a 45 (remember those?!) and I remember listening to it quite a lot when I was toddler+ age. I think the version they had was this one by Marlene Dietrich (but not totally sure about that).

Anyway, this is the first piece of music I remember listening to over & over again.

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